COMMUNICATING WITH ELECTED OFFICIALS
“The World Is Run by Those Who Write!”
THE POLITICAL ANIMAL
Elected officials, whether at the local, state or federal level, value communication from the people they represent. Loggers are not only a valuable local business; you and your employees represent voters, and most elected officials will listen to you if you are concise and make sense.
You can make a difference by communicating your views to county supervisors, state representatives, members of Congress, and others. Elected officials do listen to their constituents, both those who voted for them and those who did not.
No more important source of information is available to politicians than the people who live and work in their state, district, or county. Constituents present more than just general concepts and abstract themes – they offer personal experiences and observations to help make the abstract more concrete.
Democracy means, quite literally, the rule of the people – all of the people. Local and state elected officials, senators, and representatives represent all those who live in their states or districts, not just those who voted for them. It may seem strange that elected officials would have a constitutional mandate and a sense of obligation to represent those who may have worked for their defeat, but democracy presupposes that majority rights and minority rights go together.
As a citizen of a democracy and an activist logger, you have an opportunity and a responsibility to inform yourself on public issues and to express your opinion. Democracy functions best when elected officials are educated about the problems confronting them and active in the solutions. Only through participation can individuals control their own destinies, rather than be subject to the whims of others.
To learn which committees your federal and state representatives and senators serve on, order the APA Congressional Directory, a pocket-size directory listing federal senators’ and representatives’ committee assignments, room numbers, and phone numbers; Senate and House Committee rosters; room numbers, phone numbers, and majority and minority staff directors; state congressional delegations; and Capitol Hill phone numbers for legislative information. Single copies $5.00 each for APA members, $10.00 for all others; please include check with order. For volume discounts, call APA. Mail orders should be addressed to:
American Pulpwood Association,
1025 Vermont Avenue NW, Suite 1020
Washington, DC 20005
Phone orders may be placed by calling (202) 347-2900.
There are several ways to communicate with elected officials:
Letter-writing is the most convenient and common way of communicating with elected officials. Although hundreds of letters may be received each week, your letter can and will have an impact.
Many Congressmen and Senators read a significant portion of their mail personally. Others ask their staff to select the most interesting and revealing letters. Congressional offices keep a weekly, and in some cases daily, count of how their mail is running on particular issues. Your letters count!
Write on printed personal or business stationery, if you have it. This will eliminate any doubt about your name and address. If not, type your name and address at the end of your letter and sign above it.
Whom should you write?
It’s always best to write to any elected official by name. If you don’t have the name of your county board supervisor or state or federal representative, take the time to find out who represents you. Often this information is available through your local library or Chamber of Commerce.
Where should you write?
Obviously it’s best to write directly to the elected official’s main office, whether that’s in the county seat, state capitol, or Washington, DC.
At the federal level, address your letters to:
Senator ______________ Representative United States Senate U.S. House of Representatives Washington, D.C. 20510 Washington, D.C. 20515 Dear Senator _______: Dear Representative
General tips for writing effective letters and communicating with elected officials
- Use your own words. Personal letters with one signature carry more weight than form letters. This is especially important if you are responding to something you read. If an elected official receives numerous letters with nearly identical wording, he or she may discount them as part of an organized pressure campaign. Even so, pressure campaigns have worked when mail was so voluminous that it had to be weighed rather than read!
- Be concise. A one-page letter is long enough. Identify clearly the subject or issue in which you are interested, not just bill numbers. Remember, it is easy to get an incorrect bill number.
- State why you are concerned about the issue. Your own personal experience is excellent supporting evidence. Explain how you think an issue or bill will affect your business, profession, community, or family.
- Be polite. Do not write insults if your letter is to be taken seriously.
- Don’t ever, ever threaten. Don’t even hint, “I’ll never vote for you unless you do what I want.” Present the best arguments in favor of your position and ask for their consideration. You needn’t remind a member of Congress of electoral consequences. Mail and phone calls will be counted without your prompting.
- Limit your letter to one topic. You want the right staff person to read your letter.
- Letters with multiple issues tend to get lost in the shuffle. If you know the staff person working on the issue in question, send the letter directly to him or her. This will help ensure your letter gets attention. Send letters on different issues in separate envelopes.
- Ask the member where he or she stands on an issue. If you get a noncommittal response, write again, demanding to know where your member stands.
- Don’t pretend to wield vast political influence. Write elected officials as a constituent, not as a self-appointed spokesman for your neighborhood, community, or industry. However, if you really are a spokesman for a group, be sure to mention it.
- Don’t use trite phrases or cliches. They can make your letter sound mass-produced when it isn’t. And avoid industry jargon. Most folks won’t know what a skidder or jigpoke is.
- Try to establish a relationship with your own elected representatives. In general, you’ll have more influence as a constituent. If you don’t know whose district you are in, call your local county voter registrar and give him or her your zip code.
- Try to establish a relationship with local staff members. They tend to be local people and very approachable. Often knowing the staff is just as important as knowing the elected official.
- Communicate while legislative committees and subcommittees are considering legislation, as well as when it is on the floor for a vote.
- Find out the committees and subcommittees on which your local officials, representatives, and senators serve. Elected officials have much more influence over legislation within their committee’s and subcommittee’s jurisdiction. After bills move through committee, they become much more difficult to change, amend or defeat.
Following is an example of a general letter you might write to an elected official. If specific legislation is pending, insert the bill number and title, and be sure to ask for a response.
Sample letter to your legislator:
(Address available from local library, League of Women Voters, Congressman’s local office, etc.)
Highly vocal wilderness groups have caused the withdrawal of huge tracts of productive timber for wilderness areas and other pet projects. The amount of wilderness land set aside has grown from 9.1 million acres in 1964 to 91 million acres today – a ten-fold increase! How much is enough?
In my opinion, our commercial national forest land is under-utilized, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, where timber can help satisfy the growing domestic demand for wood products. At the same time, this area can provide additional benefits – from recreational and scenic enjoyment to wildlife habitat – without impairing future supplies of this renewable resource.
The action you take is critically important to the forest products industry, to local governments which share in the proceeds of timber sales, and to the public at large. It is important that before any action is taken, studies be made of the economic impact on the states and counties that will be affected by legislation.
If you are going to provide the greatest benefit for our economy, environment and citizenry, you will need to base your decision on facts, not rhetoric; on reality, not fiction.
Please allow us to make the fullest possible use – economic, scenic, and recreational – of this remarkable and renewable resource – our national forests.
Mailgrams, telegrams, telexes, and other forms of electronic communications are an effective way to let elected officials know where you stand – but less so than they used to be.
Traditionally, because of the cost, constituents only used electronic communications when there wasn’t time to send a letter. Elected officials paid great attention to them because it was felt–and studies confirmed–that only politically active constituents with intense feelings on an issue would pay for a relatively expensive communication. As the cost of electronic communications has dropped, so has their impact. In fact, while some officials have installed computers with electronic mailboxes, so that constituents with computers and word processors can send messages directly to them, these messages are treated with varying degrees of attention. They know that a pressure group with a computer and a mailing list can generate a tremendous volume of electronic mail–or mailgrams, telegrams, and telexes, for that matter.
Now that fax machines are more popular, they face the same problems. Most state and federal offices of elected officials will have a fax machine but often won’t release the number publicly. If they did, the volume of fax mail coming in would restrict their ability to fax out.
Use electronic messages only when there isn’t time for a letter.
Telephone calls can be very useful for a constituent who wants to make his or her views known to elected officials, although your call will most frequently be routed to a staff member. That’s another good reason to get to know the staff responsible for timber issues.
Telephone calls can be used when there isn’t time for a letter. A phone call is more personal than an electronic message and usually has more impact.
Phone calls can also be used to learn where an elected official stands on an issue, then a constituent can follow up with a letter. Frequently, politicians will have two responses to an issue; one for supporters and one for opponents. Opponents receive a return letter that is gracious and polite but vague. But if you call and discuss an issue with a staff person, you will probably be able to sense which way your elected official is leaning, even if he or she is still “uncommitted” or “studying the issue.”
Be sure to do your homework before you call. You may end up talking to an aide who specializes in an issue. But remember, part of the aide’s job is to answer constituent inquiries.
If you truly want to talk to a Member rather than staff, get a group of loggers together and try to set up a prearranged conference call. A question-and-answer session conducted from the privacy of an official’s office is often convenient. But everyone should do their homework and know the arguments in opposition to as well as in support of their views. Remember, politicians debate issues at great length with opponents of great skill; in a dialogue, they have as much of an opportunity to persuade you as you have to persuade them. A representative from your local phone company can help you arrange conference calls.
Calling members of Congress
If you don’t know a Member of Congress’ phone number, call the Capitol switchboard, (202) 224-3121, and ask to be connected with the Members’ office. Starting on page C-9 we have provided a listing of phone numbers.
Meeting a Member of Congress or a local elected politician face-to-face is probably the best way to present your views. Be sure to bring briefing materials to leave behind after you leave, and always offer to provide additional input if needed.
Typically, with the proper advance planning, elected officials are willing to meet with a group in the district office or a group visiting the Washington office. Call an official’s office, ask for the administrative assistant, and inquire how you can arrange the meeting.
Another way to meet local or state representatives is to invite them to address an audience, preferably to answer questions, which requires less preparation than a speech. Almost any kind of organization can play host. Members are especially fond of visiting plants, where they can get a feel for how a business operates; or workers’ cafeterias, where they can meet with large numbers of constituents. Also invite them out to your logging job. They often like to attend business meetings or events sponsored by local legislative action organizations. Call their office and ask for the appointments secretary. If you are flexible in your dates, make an offer months in advance, and if you aim for a traditional congressional recess, you have a good chance of meeting your representative face-to-face in his or her home district.
Getting a face-to-face meeting with an elected official is, of course, only the first step. If you want the meeting to be effective, you must thoroughly investigate the issues which you wish to discuss, pro and con; you must think about how best to express your views in the forum in which you are meeting; and you must be prepared to discuss issues with a politician–someone who has likely acquired great skills in dealing with people.